Conservative Conservation

WHO said: ''To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed''?

If you guessed Rachel Carson, Al Gore, or the latest Sierra Club newsletter, guess again. It was Theodore Roosevelt, one of this century's most celebrated Republicans and conservationists, in a message delivered to Congress in 1907.

Environmental regulations, now under assault in many quarters, should be reviewed and, where appropriate, revised or discarded if they are unworkable or ineffective.

But what troubles environmentalists, including many moderate and some conservative Republicans, is the aversion among many conservatives to any regulation that might protect the environment or the public health.

One can hardly be a true conservative without also being a conservationist - both are derived from the word ''conserve.'' The role model for any real conservative should be Roosevelt, who increased the land area of our public forests by more than 350 percent and instituted policies designed to protect our vast public lands. Roosevelt was also in a sense the ''father of consumer protectionism'' because of his work in cleaning up the unspeakably filthy packinghouses of Chicago, which at the time supplied most of the nation's meat.

But Republican activism on the environment did not stop with Roosevelt. Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act and legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency. And, early in his career, House Speaker Newt Gingrich voted for the Clean Air Act and the Alaska Lands Act.

We should strive to make protective laws and regulations work better and more equitably. While the need for the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act is obvious, legislation such as the the Endangered Species Act seems more esoteric because its impact is further removed from our everyday lives. But by protecting endangered animals and plants, the legislation indirectly protects the environment. The much-discussed spotted owl, for example, bears almost the entire burden of protecting the remaining 10 percent of our irreplaceable ancient forests. We know from bitter experience that logging out all or most of these ancient trees would create an ecological and economic disaster area.

If conservatives want to target government waste and bad environmental law, they should take aim at the public lands giveaway programs. Thanks to the Mining Law of 1872, which should have been repealed decades ago, a Canadian mining company last year paid the United States government $9,765 for a hard-rock mining claim in Nevada, estimated to be worth $10 billion. The government didn't require the company to pay royalties on the profits or to clean up the toxic waste that will likely be left behind.

US taxpayers also support commercial logging in nearly 60 percent of national forests, much of which is ruining the environment through clearcutting. Ranchers, meanwhile, graze their herds on public lands, paying a small fraction of what they would have to pay private landowners for similar grazing rights. For years, the Government Accounting Office has criticized these taxpayer-financed subsidies as damaging to the environment. With goodwill and reasonable compromises, environmental protection can be reconciled with economic activities. But if the bottom line is all that matters, we face certain disaster.

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